Here is a little introduction for people unfamiliar with the swim. If you know what it is, feel free to scroll past this part to get to “the story”! For a write up on my crew, Kristine, Jamie and Dan, along with how I was feeling the day before, check out Catalina Preview.
The Catalina Channel
The Catalina Channel is the ocean between Catalina Island and mainland California. Despite the hit song “26 miles to Catalina”, the shortest distance between the island and mainland is actually 20.5 miles. You may swim more than that if you aren’t good at keeping a consistent distance between yourself and your escort boat.
There isn’t a race or group event going across the channel. Swimmers charter one of three boats to guide them across as either a solo attempt (one swimmer only, buddy swimmer limited to three one hour swims), a tandem swim (two swimmers going the same pace, together at all times) or a relay (swimmers trading off in shifts to reach the other side). I did the solo option, which meant that my friend Jamie Proffitt could swim the three one hour shifts, with at least one hour of alone swimming preceding each swim.
The Catalina Channel is one of three marathon swims making up, “The Triple Crown”. The other two are the English Channel and the swim around Manhattan Island, now called, “The Twenty Bridges Marathon Swim”.
The Catalina Channel Swimming Federation
Swims are ratified by the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation (CCSF) and are done under specific rules. For example, a swimmer can only wear a swimsuit, cap, goggles and ear plugs—no wetsuits or fancy speedsuits or things attached to you like tow float-buoys and whatnot. One of the most common questions I got beforehand from folks was, “can you wear a wetsuit? Why not?” Well, first of all, the water was quite warm (72F) for most of the swim. There were times I regretted wearing a silicone cap instead of the slightly cooler latex one. A wetsuit would’ve been unbearable and maybe even dangerously warm, not to mention the chafing (inevitable after so many hours, regardless of what product you use). But one of the biggest reason channel swimmers don’t wear wetsuits is because training your body to deal with water temperature is part of the training. It’s part of the sport, just as getting good at riding an actual bicycle (not an electric powered bike) is part of triathlon. Although some people have a natural talent for dealing with the cold, everyone can improve, because our bodies go through a series of adaptations when continually exposed to cold water.
The CCSF provides two observers to be present on the boat and monitor not only rule following (no hanging on the kayak, no breaks, no one touching you), but also health indicators (are you peeing regularly, are you vomiting, shivering, feeling ok). They have the authority to end the swim if they think you are in danger–a good idea since they are more objective than your crew, who are often made up of close friends.
The Bottom Scratcher
I chartered The Bottom Scratcher for my swim. There are two other options, Magician and Pacific Star. I don’t know much about those, but I loved the Bottom Scratcher, her captains and and her crew. The Bottom Scratcher has been guiding people across the channel for decades. The large, 25 person dive boat is no longer under the original ownership, but current owner Captain Kevin Bell worked under the old owner for many years before taking over. Everyone we talked to spoke extremely positively of Captain Kevin, so we knew we were in good hands. Someone told us that he also works as an engineer and that consequently, the boat is in extremely good condition mechanically. This is a big deal–what happens if the swim you trained so hard for has to be cancelled on account of a boat that breaks down?
The Bottom Scratcher is the boat with the American flag on top in the picture below.
Me: why is it taking so long? Why is our progress slowing down suddenly?
Other me: I don’t know, dude. There’s probably a current. Just keep swimming.
Me: I’m just so irritated. We could be there by now.
Other Me: why do you want to get there? You like swimming. You’re not even that tired. Don’t you kind of want to swim as much as you can?
Me: not really.
Other Me: well you’re not that tired and you’re already here, so swimming longer than you thought isn’t really a bad thing.
Me: well I guess you’re right in that regard.
Looking back on my internal dialogue, I’m aware of just how wacky this sounds, but let’s take a look at how I got to this point…
14 hours earlier: Before the Swim
After The Bottom Scratcher left the harbor around 7:30 pm, the pre-swim meeting began, led by Captain Jim. We learned that two captains (Jim and Kevin) would be working in shifts, along with two deck hands, (Ryan and David). Roxy, Joel and Camilla, from the CCSF would be observing. Lauren was working the galley for the boat crew.
The captains explained all the rules of the boat and what everyone’s roles would be. They both were very clear, informative and approachable while still projecting a professional feeling of authority. I felt I could already trust them. Even though they said having two kayaks was a first for them, they allowed me to swim between the kayaks as long as we would immediately adjust if they found it wasn’t working. They explained they would be piloting from the top of the boat, and must be able to see everyone in the water very clearly at all times. Only red lights were allowed on board and on kayakers’ headlamps, so I was happy I’d already insisted on the same rules, so all three of my friends were properly equipped. The observers would need to be able to see me clearly at night to count my strokes (if there’s a problem your stroke rate will decrease). Consequently, everyone wanted me to swim nearest to the Bottom Scratcher so they could have the best view of me, with both kayakers or kayaker and buddy swimmer off to my right. I was so thankful they were flexible and agreed to give it a try with me swimming right next to Dan, flanked on the other side by Kristine in the second kayak or Jamie during his swim shifts. I know doing it this way made a big difference in my swim.
Many of my family and friends expressed interest in the swim, so I decided to register with track.rs, tracking software developed by fellow marathon swimmer, Evan Morrison. For those of you who watched me swim (or anyone else’s tracker), you’ll recognize this series of orange dots.
While we were riding on the boat to the island, Jamie got a message from Evan himself, saying that the tracker was not working well (it had poor accuracy). The two of them verified all the settings were correct and Evan somehow switched to tracking the Bottom Scratcher itself rather than Dan’s phone, as we had originally planned. I believe there was a second hiccup during the swim and he and Jamie worked it out again! All this took place without me even realizing there was a problem. What amazing support I had. If you want to register your swim with track.rs, go to https://track.rs.
The Nausea Begins
As the boat pulled out of the harbor, it rocked gently and I found the motion comforting, as if I were in a giant rocking chair. Later, Kristine mentioned she was feeling the same pleasant sensation. I guess I’m not prone to sea sickness, I thought happily. But after just a little while I started to feel queasy. Stepping outside I felt much better and stood on deck with Dan for awhile. He started working on getting the kayaks ready so I climbed up to the top of the boat and hung out with Jamie and Kristine for awhile.
View from the upper deck of Dan getting his kayak ready.
The view was great but I was starting to feel nauseous. I didn’t really get why, since the water wasn’t all that wavy, compared to other situations I’ve been in. I drank a ginger brew but the feeling just got worse. I paced, talked to Dan, went inside, went outside, stared at the horizon, but nothing helped. Finally, I found myself leaning my head on the kayak, eyes shut, pushing on my temples. “Just don’t vomit. You need those calories,” Other Me told me, thinking about the dinner I had consumed. I went into the cabin and crawled into a little bunk, dozing while squeezing my eyes shut and trying to remember where the anti-motion sickness pressure point is on your wrist. In the photo above, you can see the little bunks underneath where the kayaks are. There are some other bunks in the “indoor” part of the boat.
Someone told me it was time to get up and swim. It turned out we had come to a stop. I got up and realized I was freezing cold and my teeth were chattering. Apparently, Other Me thought we were in for the night and had turned the core-temp thermostat down. I drank a hot mug of water and shivered while everyone else got ready. After about a half hour, the queasiness had subsided and I had stopped shivering. I was happy and ready to swim!
We started just before 11:30pm. Dan and Kristine got in first, with their kayaks lit up with glow sticks and Christmas lights. They paddled off to the island. I was next and jumped in when directed, following a spotlight from the boat to a rocky beach. I immediately noticed the wonderful buoyancy of the salt water, feeling ecstatically great. I had been told to grab a rock from the start on the island to pair up with a rock from the finish as a swim souvenir. Rock collecting is another hobby Dan and I do together so I was really excited for this part. I couldn’t see much, but spotted a nice looking quartzy one and grabbed it. I shoved it under my swim cap, next to my forehead and raised my hand in the traditional ready-to-start signal I had been instructed to use. When I touched the water, my hand went down so the observers could officially start the clock.
I swam over to Kristine and dropped the rock in her kayak, making sure not to come close to touching her or the kayak as that is against the rules. The rock made a loud thunk against the plastic and I was off on my first hour.
Swimming between the two well-lit kayaks (below).
The first hour was not like I visualized and not like my fear-ridden practice swims. I felt great, cruising through the buoyant water and happy to finally be on my way. The novelty of the whole thing superseded any anxiety I may have otherwise had. I cut off any thoughts that may have steered me down the road of considering what wildlife might be in the dark water below. Instead I focused on orienting myself to the kayaks and Bottom Scratcher, getting settled in and holding myself back from swimming too hard. As each arm went in, thousands of tiny lights cascaded off of it, like a galaxy of stars against the night sky. This was the much anticipated phosphorescence people had told me about. It was most apparent when I’d do a few strokes of breaststroke. Pushing my arm around underwater would light these small organisms up like fireflies. It was beautiful.
Before I knew it, hour one was up and Jamie was trading places with Kristine to swim with me for hour two. It was during this hour we saw what I call, “glow thumbs” for the first time. These were glowing organisms about the size of your thumb, rising up in clusters from the depths below. We were told they had freaked someone out the night before but not to worry about them. Knowing they were harmless, I found them enchanting.
I started comparing the current timeline to my Waldo swim a few weeks ago. Around four hours, Other Me pointed out that this was around the time that Dan met me during the Waldo swim. “You’ve just got a ‘three islands route’ left”, Other Me said in reference to the 22k route in Waldo Lake that I did for the first time last year.
“Just a three-islands route, hmph”, I grumbled back. “My arms are already starting to hurt”.
“Sure. But do they really hurt that bad?”
“No… not really I guess”, I sighed and kept swimming. Somewhere during this time period the nausea crept back in, getting worse and worse as the time went by.
Jamie got in for his second swim. This time he swam much closer to me, instead of where he normally would swim if we were in a lake. I was sandwiched between him and the kayak so it was a bit tricky to avoid running into either him or the kayak.
“You know, it’s ok to ask for what you want,” the Other Me said. I didn’t answer.
“Just ask!” It insisted.
“Ugh. Fine!” I stopped swimming and Jamie looked up, startled.
“Could I have a little more room?” I asked, as politely as I could manage.
“Of course!” He answered graciously. Then he swam in the perfect spot, just off to my left, staying slightly behind me so as to be compliant with the rules of not giving me a draft.
I later learned that he had been told to swim closer to me than on the first swim and he didn’t really know if it was a safety thing so he decided not to object. Then I went and told him to swim further from me! Poor guy couldn’t win, but he said he was fine and didn’t get any further re-direction from the crew or observers. Having him in there helped mark the passing hours and break up the monotony with some companionship.
Kristine got back in the kayak. It was nice to see her and have a change to break up the monotony. It sure was helpful having her there in addition to Dan. I stopped for a “feed” (water mixed with infinit go-far powder in my case) and started back up again with backstroke to stretch out my shoulders. I kept heading toward my right when I’d do this. When Kristine was in, I’d almost run into the kayak (actually did at one point), but when she wasn’t in, I’d drift toward the Bottom Scratcher. At one point I was heading straight for it, coming so close everyone on deck was yelling at me to turn around before I noticed. So it really was helpful having Kristine on one side and Dan in the other, boxing me in. It was a hard job for the kayakers, but allowed me to breath to both sides without zig zagging around in the area between Dan and the Bottom Scratcher. Dan even mentioned later that having Kristine on the water with him was a comfort, especially when the moon fell behind the fog and we found ourselves all in a sea of darkness.
The Nausea Returns
By hours five, six and seven, the nausea had returned and was making me not want to try hard. The moon had gone behind some clouds, before eventually setting, so it was a lot darker. The darker it is, the more likely a swimmer is to get vertigo from not being able to see the horizon or the contrast between sky and water. I didn’t feel dizzy, but there wasn’t any chop and the swells were small–like a foot high maybe. These channel swims are almost always done starting at night because the wind makes the water choppier in the afternoon. Swimming at night usually means calmer waters. As I swum, I questioned whether I’d prefer the chop to the nausea.
I don’t typically want to eat solid food during swims, but this time the idea of it made my stomach reel. I knew it was almost time for me to have coffee and a peanut butter cliff-builders bar. But I just couldn’t. I felt so sick that I had goosebumps despite the warm-ish water. I even felt weirdly chilled like you do when you’re really nauseous. I asked for the water temp during a feed. Seventy-four was the answer. Wow, I thought. That’s really, really warm. I realized it was more like a cold sweat feeling from the nausea. Just then, my stomach heaved in an odd, almost gentle way. Very odd, actually, and out came the tinniest little throw-up you ever did see. I don’t even feel comfortable saying I puked, because it really wasn’t like that. But it wasn’t like acid reflux either. Gross, but oh so relieving! I felt so good and it was like I was starting fresh and rested again. My body cruised through the water with no struggle and I savored the lack of nausea… until it started to build again about ten minutes later. When you puke, your brain cells actually releases certain chemicals, neurotransmitters that make you feel good, similar to taking a Xanax. I reflected on this as I swam along, hoping for the best of both worlds: mini-puking without losing much water or calories. I thought perhaps burping more would help, so I gave myself a free pass on the builders bar and asked Jamie to tell Kristine to get the other Coca Cola ready for me when she got back in for hours 6-7. I started drinking fizzy vanilla coke for every other feed, which caused frequent little burp-ups that were relieving every time.
Somewhere in there something stung my arm. It felt like a brief electric shock and went away as quickly as it came. There had been a few other, milder pin pricks earlier that I assumed were maybe sea lice. In any event, I imagine it was a jelly, but what do I know? And it didn’t pose a problem of any kind so if it was, it was definitely the gentle variety.
Hours 7, 8 and 9
This was definitely the most enjoyable three hours of the swim. First light right around hour 7 brought hope and a morale boost and looked something like this:
As soon as the sun rose, my nausea vanished, further adding weight to the theory it wasn’t about the water conditions, but more about the almost non-existent horizon on the ocean at night. I stored that information away for later swim planning. With every feed, I felt stronger and happier than the last. At one point I told Dan I was feeling “800% better than when we started”. Plus, Other Self was in rare form with its glib remarks and witty humor. I wish I could remember some of the things that were said, but most of them are gone now. A lot of it was discussion of the going-ons in the boat and Dan’s kayak. I’m not actually sure if any of it was truly funny or if I was just thinking ordinary thoughts, but those thoughts just seemed extremely entertaining at that time. I do remember that my friend Anna, from Michigan (which is on east coast time), mentioned she’d be working an early shift and planned to check the tracker frequently, “while I go pee,” she had explained. As I calculated what time it was in various places my friends live, this memory bubbled up. Other Self thought it was hilarious and kept bringing it up. “Hey, maybe you should pee right now too,” it suggested. “You and Anna could be peeing at the same time, you know.” Later, Anna told me her co-workers were confused by her frequent bathroom breaks, during which she’d reload the tracker and maybe pee or not.
Here’s me peeing and drinking a coke at the same time!
I took all these pee jokes in stride– yelling “PEEING!!” loudly for the whole boat to hear whenever I did, which was almost exactly every twenty minutes, like clockwork. It cracked me up most of the swim and I thoroughly enjoyed this part. However, it’s really a serious thing because if you aren’t peeing it can be a sign of kidney failure and the observers need to know your body is functioning well.
At some point, Other Self suggested we play, “The Alphabet Game”, which involves saying a positive word starting with each letter in the alphabet. This game is really hard when you’re in a bad mood, but a lot of fun when you’re feeling great. Either way, it keeps the mind busy and boosts morale. Other Self also put before me an intriguing riddle: “why has Jamie decided not to get into the water for his third swim yet?” Trying to solve this puzzle was irrationally enjoyable and it passed the time. I’ve got it! I shouted in my head, after a bit. I had solved the riddle. Jamie wanted to swim through the cold part at the end of the swim to see what it felt like. I felt so proud to have discovered his true motives. Too bad I wasn’t even close. He had like three or four motives, none of them including swimming through the cold upwelling.
Another mind game was that Other Self rewarded me with a new Lady Gaga song at the start of each twenty minute feed cycle. I could have that song in my head and earn a new one by swimming on to the next feed break. No cheating by switching songs before the next break.
The Doldrums of Hour 10
I started to get impatient. I knew we had been on track to finish in around ten hours, so imagine my dismay when progress slowed to a crawl. Later I learned it was due to a strong current working against us. It was near the trench that is well known for causing an upwelling of cold water. We speculated maybe it contributed to the current since the tide was still going in at that time and should’ve been helping us. It just goes to show how complicated the ocean is. After passing the trench, progress sped up again, much to my relief. However, before that, as we were proceeding at a glacial pace, Dan and I both found ourselves independently frustrated. The fog next to the land was so thick that it looked like just open ocean lay ahead. Every so often, I’d pick my head up to look (always a mistake). Finally, when it was time for a feed, I yell-asked, “where’s the fucking land?!”
“It’s foggy,” Dan said calmly. Later I learned he had been equally irritated and had asked the exact same question in the exact same tone. We both silently concluded the crew was lying to us and we actually had ten miles or so to go.
“Are you ok?” He asked for the 30th time. It really was 30. He had to ask every feed for the observer’s log and it was getting old.
“I guess.” I replied, testily.
“No. ARE YOU OK,” he barked back.
“YES!” I screamed and started swimming again. I immediately felt bad for screaming. It wasn’t Dan’s fault he had to ask me if I was ok every twenty minutes. It wasn’t even the observer’s fault. It’s actually a good idea to force people to check in no matter what.
I picked my head up and looked again. This time I thought I saw a skyscraper through the fog. Maybe it’s clearing up or maybe we are finally getting closer, I thought. Later, when it really did clear up, this became a good laugh for us all. If you’ve ever been to Palos Verdes, where the swim ends, you’ll understand. The beach is totally undeveloped, with huge cliffs looming over the shore. There definitely are no skyscrapers there. Dan told me later his eyes got a bit buggy too and it looked as though every wave was a potential shark fin.
Jamie could see morale was sinking to an all-swim-low, so he shouted, “oooo look! Dolphins!!” I stopped swimming and looked around frantically, not wanting to miss the famous, playful companions. Later I learned it was a prank (he cracks me up), but I was so convinced, that I conjured up a hallucinated dolphin very far off in the distance. So I guess the prank worked on me at least. It was during this time that the dialogue between me and my other self opening this story occurred. It really was ok to swim longer and my arms hurt, but I otherwise felt my energy was good and I could keep going indefinitely. It just seemed more like my previous expectations were what was bugging me more than how I felt physically.
Finally the fog cleared up and we could see the cliffs of Palos Verdes ahead of us. It still seemed miles and miles away, so I resolved to not get my hopes up, despite being told we had 3/4 of a mile to go. I saw Dan talking with the captain and heard the word “choice”, which meant they were discussing where to land–the closer, rocky area or the further sandy beach. It turned out the captain was telling Dan there was “only one choice”, the sandy beach, which was fine with me, (of course–because I had decided I like swimming). It also appeared Dan and I were going to go all the way in together, which I had really hoped for. As the shore became more and more clearly visible, I stubbornly refused to get my hopes up. Finally, I could see the bottom and knew I had made it. I felt suddenly emotional and walked slowly up the beach until I heard The Bottom Scratcher honk its horn, signaling the end of the swim!
Dan gave me a huge, long hug and jumped into the water himself, with a happy “wahooooo!” It made me feel happy to see him enjoying the water and our finish. I was so proud that we had both done the whole channel together!
We looked around for a rock to collect from the finish of the swim that could go with the one I had grabbed from the start. I spotted a dark-colored striped one and thought it’d go well with he white quartzy one from the start. Dan said I should choose, and it turned out he had been eyeing the same rock. So I grabbed it and put it in the kayak to take back to The Bottom Scratcher.
I found myself getting chilly standing on the windy beach in my swimsuit and knew I couldn’t hang out for too long. I started shivering and signaled to Dan I was going to go ahead and swim back to the boat. He came too and I was greeted by warm smiles and congratulations. Kristine was holding my towel, exactly what I needed right then and I finally got to drink the hot cup of chocolate I was hoping to have mid-swim.
Channel Swim Friendly Local Businesses
There were a number of locals who really helped us out and if you are planning a Catalina swim, or are visiting the area, you may want to check these spots.
House of Owls (Airbnb)
We stayed in this two bedroom, one bath, airbnb that was a few minutes drive from The Bottom Scratcher’s marina. We even walked down there the evening before to check it out. The place was clean, quiet and relaxing. There was a washer and dryer, oven, toaster oven, various ways to make coffee, fridge and freezer, hot shower, everything you really need. The couch was even comfortable enough to sleep on!
OEX Sunset (Kayak rentals)
It was a big of a drive to get to Sunset Beach from the airbnb in San Pedro, but it was worth it. This place rented us a long, stable sit-on-top kayak for $45 for one day–just pick up anytime and drop off anytime the next day. The really amazing thing was that their employees are professional kayak escorts for the channel! Ramon Hipolito (who turned out to be the brother of our observer, Roxy) allowed us to ask him an hour’s worth of questions and suggested we rent the kayak he had paddled across the channel last week. They were so helpful and reassuring that it set our minds at ease–we were getting a kayak that was appropriate for what we were doing.
Fantastic Lebanese food in San Pedro, just a few blocks from the airbnb. I recommend the falafel sandwich!
If you need a pre-swim burger, try this place. They have a million options, but I just got the simple burger. It was one of the best burgers I’ve ever had. They don’t use ground beef, we were told, just ground tri-tip and brisket!
We found this place in downtown San Pedro based on its great yelp reviews and decided to go there the evening after the swim. We walked in to find there were two large families celebrating birthdays and everyone was talking and laughing. Normally, I don’t like loud restaurants, but the celebratory atmosphere was so happy and full of love, I immediately relaxed. As I sat looking at the menu, wondering how many entrees and appetizers I should order, our waiter brought us two, huge (complimentary) plates of bread, marinated tomatoes and roasted red peppers. My eyes wanted to jump out of my head and my taste buds were freaking out with joy. Next came delicious salads of fresh mixed greens. We hadn’t even ordered yet! Finally, I ordered chicken spaghetti in red sauce and a glass of wine. While we were waiting, our waiter chatted with another table, then suddenly broke into song. He had an amazing voice and sang what sounded like a lullaby in Italian, while the family at the table he was singing to held up their six month old baby. My mind was blown. We ate as much as we could and asked for the rest to go. Our waiter told us he had planned to bring us some spumoni and wondered if we really needed to go already. Wow, I wished I had room for spumoni, but my poor stomach couldn’t fit much in it after all. We sadly asked for the check, but left feeling happy, satisfied and thankful.